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 By Jeff Rueter

New faces, teams and stadiums highlight 10 best MLS matches of 2018

With nearly a month having passed since Toronto FC lifted MLS Cup, Thursday marked the outline of the next chapter as Major League Soccer announced its 2018 schedule in full. The match listings come in the middle of one of the busiest offseasons in league history. From expansion announcements to player movement, there's been no shortage of storylines to follow across the league. With this in mind, here are 10 games we'll be keeping our eyes on this season:

March 17 | Real Salt Lake vs. New York Red Bulls

When these two teams met last season, Real Salt Lake earned a 0-0 draw under interim coach Daryl Shore. Less than a week later, they named their full-time head coach: former Red Bulls boss Mike Petke. As Petke nearly took a stuttering RSL side to the postseason, expectations are high for his first full campaign. This will mark his first matchup against the New York side with which he was long synonymous. It's safe to assume there's some emotion tied to his return.

April 13 | Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City

The 2017 season was one to forget for both of these Eastern Conference sides, with each failing to make the postseason. Philadelphia snuck into the sixth seed in 2016, the only time in Jim Curtin's four seasons the club has reached the playoffs. Meanwhile, Jason Kreis returns for an Orlando side trying to make its first postseason appearance. If their respective sides stumble out of the gate this year, both coaches will likely be on the hot seat; this match might be an early must-win.

April 21 | Montreal Impact vs. LAFC

When Laurent Ciman was traded for two expansion draft selections, many people were wondering why Montreal would give up on its Belgian center-back stalwart. Nobody was more skeptical than agent Jean Russo, who didn't leave much unsaid after the trade. A verbal agreement to let Ciman retire in Montreal was broken, and he'll have a crack at redemption when he returns to Stade Saputo.

June 24 | Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers

As Portland's first ever SuperDraft pick, Darlington Nagbe was long seen as the heart and soul of the Timbers. Now, he'll line up against his former club for the only time in 2018. Atlanta has held nothing back in trying to improve on a historically successful first season, retooling its roster to give Gerardo Martino as many toys as possible to play with.

Darlington Nagbe
Darlington Nagbe's only contest against his former side, Portland Timbers, will come in June.

July 1 | Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls

The defending champs will have a target on their backs all season. Still, no team may have circled their chance at Toronto bolder than the Red Bulls. New York nearly pipped TFC in the conference semifinals, and Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore ended up suspended thanks to cards accumulated in the chippy matchup. While Jesse Marsch's side underwent a facelift this offseason (more on that later), this game promises to have playoff implications.

July 14 | D.C. United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Finally, D.C. United has a stadium of its own. Audi Field will be the latest soccer-specific stadium in the United States to open its doors. Meanwhile, Vancouver will find itself in the middle of a redemption campaign after struggling at the end of 2017. Featuring a very international-friendly roster, the Caps should be close to full strength as the World Cup draws to a close.

July 26 | LAFC vs. LA Galaxy

Although the first battle for Los Angeles takes place on March 31, this will mark the first installment at Banc of California Stadium. The last time the City of Angels pitted two MLS sides against each other was Aug. 31, 2014, when the Galaxy crushed Chivas USA 3-0. Under Bob Bradley, LAFC seem primed to be more than competitive: they might have a chance to be L.A.'s pre-eminent team.

Aug. 4 | Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC

On paper, these might be the two deepest teams in the league. Although Toronto has hosted the past two MLS Cups, no team seems better equipped to end its reign than Atlanta. Mercedes-Benz Stadium should be rocking for this clash between Eastern Conference titans.

Oct. 28 | New York Red Bulls vs. Orlando City

On the final matchday of the regular season, Sacha Kljestan will return to Red Bull Arena. Traded to Orlando earlier this week, the former captain will have a huge chip on his shoulder in 2018. There could be serious playoff seeding implications on the line during Deadline Day; you have to believe Kljestan would love to drop his former side down the table if he has the chance.

Oct. 28 | Columbus Crew SC vs. Minnesota United

Although MLS expansion has been the prevailing league storyline throughout the past 12 months, the league might be seeing its first relocation since the Earthquakes headed to Houston in 2006. There's been a very public disapproval of the potential move, rallying around the #SaveTheCrew mantra. If owner Anthony Precourt succeeds in his plans to take the Crew to Austin in 2019, this would mark the final regular-season match at Mapfre Stadium.

Jeff Rueter is a St. Paul-based writer for ESPN FC and also contributes to The Guardian, FourFourTwo and Howler. Twitter: @jeffrueter.

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